Radical Content Wins Out over Conventional Form in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch via Film Forum.
Courtesy of Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch via Film Forum.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Directed by Stanley Nelson
Opens September 2 at Film Forum

By no measure the vanguard of non-fiction filmmaking, Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution nonetheless forms a sober companion piece to Straight Outta Compton: in both films a small circle of outraged black men spearhead a movement eventually fractured by ego clashes and the insidious machinations of outsiders. Yet in the latter film soon-to-be millionaires use revolution to sell spectacle; in the former The People use spectacle to advance revolution.

The Panthers originated in Oakland in 1966 as group that monitored cops’ racially motivated arrests, guns in tow. Soon the BPP expanded nationwide, increased in radical militancy, and became the flashpoint for some of the late 60s’ most spectacular events: Eldridge Cleaver’s escape to Algeria after an attack on law enforcement; the FBI’s infiltration of the organization as part of the COINTELPRO operation; the police ambush of rising revolutionary star Fred Hampton. Nelson structures his documentary around historical news footage as well as reminiscences and observations from key Panthers such as Jamal Joseph, Sherman Forte, and Kathleen Cleaver. It’s your typical talking head fest punctuated by classic soul and R&B, but the footage and interviews pack an undeniable punch: coupled with news coverage of a shootout between cops and the LA branch of the BPP, Wayne Pharr’s passionate commentary (“I felt free—I felt absolutely free”) evokes just how intensely on the brink were revolutionary forces during that violent, tumultuous period.

The Black Panthers also refuses to shy away from the unseemly aspects of BPP history (especially Huey Newton’s post-incarceration psychopathy) and offers political context to counterbalance the radical chic that proved the Panthers to be as culturally iconic as they were socially efficacious. Participants explain the Party’s free breakfast program for undernourished black youth as well as its dedication to an anti-capitalist, and not simply anti-racist, overhaul of US policy. As per the greatest-hits nature of his enterprise, Nelson glosses over subjects such as the connection between the Panthers and contemporaneous likeminded groups like the Weather Underground and the Nation of Islam. But as an overview of its subject The Black Panthers is more than serviceable, and even at moments downright inspiring.


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